BoE approves change in HG&D policy with caveats

The Merrill Area Public Schools Board of Education voted 5-4 to go along with state mandated changes to its Human Growth and Development policy that governs how the district teaches sex education to students following an over three-hour meeting at the high school library last Wednesday. Between 50 and 60 people were in attendance with about a fifth of them speaking during the public comment period.
The change was necessitated by a new law passed by the legislature this spring that requires all school districts in the state that teach HG&D classes to offer a comprehensive curriculum, to include information on birth control, sexually transmitted diseases and other information. Merrill, like 95 percent of the school districts in the state, had previously taught an abstinence only based course.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first under the new board procedure of twice monthly meetings, although the first meeting of each month is primarily for reports and other non-action items. The board tackled the HG&D policy and the technology fee at the meeting because Board President Jeff Verdoorn said not all members would be at the second meeting this month. The new law said the board had to decide to change its policy or opt out by Sept. 30 in order to notify parents.
In a further departure from normal board policy, Verdoorn allowed public comment just before board debate on the change but after each of the nine members gave a brief statement on the new policy.
In his statement, Verdoorn said that the majority of the people that had contacted him wanted the district to continue offering the HG&D component of health classes.
Loretta Baughan suggested that the information could be taught to students in its present form by adding it to the anatomy and physiology curriculum and not have to include the information which has upset some parents.
Lin Kautza said she thought that it was discriminatory for one group to dictate a decision that would affect all students.
“As a public school, we must look at an issue from all sides, not just the viewpoint of a couple of groups,” Kautza said.
Chuck Bolder felt that the committee working on a recommendation to the board was too biased in favor of the new curriculum requirements.
“Both sides of the issue are not being represented fairly,” Bolder said.
Some board members said that since parents could opt to take their children out of the class during the sex education component, the concerns of the parents were taken into consideration while a couple of board members were uncomfortable with voting for the new curriculum since it hadn’t been developed yet.
“I think the state is once again making us do things backward,” said board member Bill Jaeger.
MAPS Curriculum Director Carole Witt Starck said the advisory committee had not reached a point where they could make a recommendation either way to the board, but that it was standing by for direction.
Then parents and other community members got their chance to voice their opinions on the policy, with both sides hoping to sway board members either way.
Jody Renaud, a lawyer who lives in Merrill, said all too often she sees clients who become mothers at too early an age and that the students of the district would be better served by the new policy.
“It’s important that our students get accurate information,” she said. “I’m not sure our parents are up to the task.”
Karen Cournaya and Mary Litschauer presented a petition signed by over 300 parents asking the board to opt out of the new curriculum for the 2010-11 school year until the matter could be studied in detail.
“We believe that it is our obligation to opt out and teach it in anatomy and physiology,” Cournaya said. “How dare we go forward without knowing what is in this bill.”
Joe Fink, a former member of the Board of Education, said the present board was faced with an emotional decision being forced on it by Madison in a flawed law.
“The very best we can do for our children is to delay,” he said.
Fink added that he saw a few people in the audience running for public office.
“I hope you make it down to Madison so they can get you out of the predicament that you are in,” Fink said.
Many who spoke against the new policy said the law was drafted by Planned Parenthood and other special interest groups that stood to gain financially from it. Several speakers urged the board to “follow the money” to see who would benefit most.
To that last charge, Verdoorn said the board had the power to decide who would teach in district schools and that no group would be paid to teach any portion of the new curriculum.
The last speaker before board debate was Scott Arneson, health teacher at Merrill High School. He said he was hesitant to speak on the subject publically but felt compelled to do so after hearing some unfair statements made about his class.
“My curriculum is abstinence, period. There is only one sure thing,” Arneson said. “I’m not real comfortable with putting a condom on a banana.”
He then offered to make a special presentation of the components to parents in the high school auditorium or make the Powerpoint presentation available to any parent who asked for it in advance, adding the part of the class that parents are objecting to is a very small portion of the curriculum.
He added that he seeks to present the information in as neutral manner as possible.
At the end of board debate, Keith Schmelling made a motion that would direct the advisory committee to have the curriculum ready 45 days before it would be taught so that parents could weigh in on it. The motion was seconded by Kautza and passed 6-3. Verdoorn said this would aid in the board’s desire to make all decisions more transparent to the public.
When the final vote on the policy was taken, Kautza, Schmelling, Verdoorn, Meredith Prebeg and Brad Kanitz voted aye while Baughan, Bolder, Jen Seliger and Jaeger voted nay.
Before the public comment period, Verdoorn said the advisory committee had become tainted by politics and disbanded it. He then set up a new committee that would include three board members, parents, a local clergy, two students and other local stakeholders to be named from volunteers. Witt Starck, Arneson and Brian Suchocki, 6th grade health teacher at Prairie River Middle School will be advisory members of the committee.
Before the discussion on the HG&D policy, the board voted 9-0 to drop the technology fee for this school year that had many parents upset. The entire district policy on fees would be examined by the Fiscal Advisory Committee made up of administrators, teachers and district residents which will make recommendations on specific fees for the 2011-12 budget.

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